Young Player of the Year

"Dallas is the best academy": Ricardo Pepi on his development, Young Player of the Year award

Coming off his breakout season, Ricardo Pepi has added another accolade to the list following Thursday's announcement that the FC Dallas homegrown forward was voted as the 2021 MLS Young Player of the Year.

Pepi adds that distinction to a 2021 campaign where he also finished No. 1 in the league's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR rankings, scoring 13 goals and dishing out three assists in 27 MLS games while emerging as a US men's national team starter.

"It's a special feeling," Pepi said of the YPOY honors on a Thursday video call. "I do it for the state of Texas. Obviously we have a rivalry with Houston, Austin. But I do it for my family, I do it for Dallas especially and also for my hometown of El Paso."

It's a remarkable emergence by a player who joins a lengthy list of talents to come through an FC Dallas development pipeline that's established a reputation as one of the league's top cultivators.

Pepi started with FC Dallas' academy from 2016-19 before he parlayed a successful stint with USL League One affiliate North Texas SC into a first-team contract that preceded this season's step forward. Reflecting on his own path, Pepi said his firsthand experience is more evidence that his club's reputation is a deserved one.

"I've always said that FC Dallas always prepared their young players well, I've always said that they put academy players in professional atmospheres," Pepi said. "I feel like every day they're preparing for what's the next step. For me, it was North Texas and then FC Dallas, for some players it can just be FC Dallas straight away. But I've always said Dallas is the best academy because they put players in a professional atmosphere and from a young age they're always just trying to push you to your limits and put you in situations where it's difficult for you, but it's also making you grow as a person, as a player."

"There was always players, ever since the first day I was on the first team, they always gave me advice, told me how it's going to be, how everything has to be straight in line," he added. "There were always players like Matt Hedges was always there to support me, Paxton [Pomykal] was always there. I feel like players like Jesus [Ferreira], Ryan [Hollingshead], I feel like every single teammate I have now with the first team was always there to support me in every way, and also just letting me grow and teach me the things that were going as a first-team player."

Pepi's future has become the subject of widespread speculation, as rumors linking him to top-flight overseas clubs were commonplace throughout the season.

All of that will be decided in time, but for now Pepi said he's taking a break from the whirlwind and evaluating areas of his game that need improvement over the offseason. There's also more to be done with the USMNT, where Pepi has been the starting No. 9 in recent Concacaf World Cup Qualifiers, with another huge slate of games looming in the January/February 2022 window.

"It's time to actually just take a little break and get to just catch up with the whole season going on," Pepi said. "I just came back from the national team yesterday so in the next few days I'll sit here and think about everything I did this season, think about things that I have to improve and keep working on and the season that it's been for me. Obviously a good season, but also things I can do better."